The images of donors are very important in Dunhuang since they make up a huge proportion of the mural surface. The basic motive behind the donation is to attain merit. It could be for the donor’s own spiritual well-being and/or worldly happiness. Alternatively, it could be transferred to others, such as deceased parents for the salvation of their souls, or members of the family so that all could be reunited in paradise.
Construction of a cave was funded by donations from a group of monks and/or laity, or by a single family. Many caves have donors’ portraits with inscriptions in cartouches beside the donors. Therefore, their names, origins and ranks, the merits they wished to have, etc. could be identified. However, these images, showing a contemporary, idealized look, were not realistic representations of the donors.
In the early period, long rows of donors’ portraits, in contemporary dress, were painted in less prominent areas, such as on the side walls in small rows, under the niches or under the main paintings. Later, they were painted on the dado part of the walls. For instance, the band, containing 70 donor figures, above the niches and below the six triads in Cave 285 is only 18 cm high (Figure 1).
The names on the cartouches and the costumes show that many of them were not Han (the majority ethnic group in China), but were minorities, such as the Xianbei from Northern China and the Sogdians (from present-day Samarkand).
From the Sui (581-618) on, it became increasingly popular to add families, entourages and servants to the depiction of donor processions of high ranking local officials. The images of the entourages and servants are usually smaller in scale, overlapped, and without inscriptions. They carry canopies, parasols, ceremonial fans, swords, etc. (Figure 2).
During the middle Tang (781-848), Dunhuang was controlled by the Tubo (Tibetan) who were very fond of building Buddhist monasteries and constructing caves. Their kings were also very happy to be the main donors and be placed in a prominent part of the painting. The best example can be found in Cave 159.
Control of the Hexi area was regained by Zhang Yichao, the local magnate. This started the Late Tang period (848-906) of Dunhuang art. Depictions of his and his wife’s triumphal processions (in Cave 156) and portraits of eminent monks (in Cave 17) provided a new stimulus for the artists, replacing the stereotypical Pure Land scenes.
Portraits of donors increased in number and size in the Five Dynasties and the Song. When Zhang’s successors, the Caos, were in power, they supported the renovation of existing caves and the construction of new ones. They had these caves decorated with their images in life-size or even larger.
The Caos controlled the Hexi area for 122 years. They formed alliances with their neighbours, the Uyghurs and the Khotan, and with the local elites, which can be noted by the inscriptions beside the portraits in the caves. In Cave 98, the Khotanese king’s huge portrait is 2.92m tall, and his robe and decorations are depicted in detail. The Caos’ female members portrayed in the large caves constructed or renovated at that time (Caves 61, 98, 100 & 108) were all painted with elaborate attire and jewelry. Even the make-up on their faces is still clearly visible today.
Figure 3: Khotanese Princess
(Cave 61, Five Dynasties)
Figure 4: Uyghurs King & Prince
(Cave 409, Five Dynasties)
During the Western Xia and Yuan (1271-1368), more non-Han people, such as the Mongolians, were painted in the procession of donors. These images are extremely valuable for studying the politics and ethnic costumes and customs of the time.